Sam Buckley: on Michelin

by Sam Buckley 1 March 2022

Chef Sam Buckley recalls a mysterious meeting with one of Michelin's own inspectors, before sharing his thoughts on the Guide, his Michelin Green star and how the little red book could lead the charge in changing kitchen culture for the better.

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With an arsenal of innovative experimental preserves, his own rooftop kitchen garden and relationships with the best producers in the UK, Sam Buckley works with his team in the airy open kitchen to create multi-course tasting menus of pure magic at his Stockport restaurant Where The Light Gets In.

With an arsenal of innovative experimental preserves, his own rooftop kitchen garden and relationships with the best producers in the UK, Sam Buckley works with his team in the airy open kitchen to create multi-course tasting menus of pure magic at his Stockport restaurant Where The Light Gets In.

One evening, in the early days of the restaurant, I was sat at the bar with the team at the end of a shift. We were drinking wine and going through the orders and prep lists for the following day when a man in a dark suit appeared furtively at my side. He and his dining partner had been sat at table six and were the only guests left with us.

‘Are you Mr Buckley?’ he whispered into my ear.

‘Depends who’s asking,’ I joked, wincing at my ever apparent over-familiarisation.

‘My name is Mr G****,’ he announced, presenting an identity card from his inside jacket pocket. The way in which this was carried out I was expecting to look down to see MI5. My eyes arrived at the print where I found, emblazoned on the surface, the logo of Michelin. ‘Is there somewhere we can go to talk?’

I stuttered, somehow more surprised than if it had been a member of her majesty’s secret service. As we walked towards the lounge area of the restaurant the inspector started to quiz me on my lineage. ‘Where might we have met before Mr Buckley? You were with Mr Kitching yes?’

‘Yes.’

‘And would we have met you at Mr Rogan’s establishment?’

‘Yes.’

He continued to talk in the royal ‘We’ for the rest of our interaction. He wore an air of clandestine mystery like a Jedi might wear a cloak.

The inspector was top heavy, suited in a well-worn pinstripe that fit snugly over his tell-tale barrel-like stature. His elocution was impeccable and along with his equine profile I was reminded of Jeremy Brett from the 1980s TV series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. He held the same stern countenance and gravitas, which he relished; his own words favoured him as a sort of apparition from a time gone by.

We sat down and he regaled me with the full history of Michelin. He told me all about the brothers who had set up a tyre company; that they had produced a small guide filled with road maps, petrol stations and places to stop and eat in order to encourage people to take long drives which would result in more worn tyres. The first guide was free but three decades later under the premise that ‘man only respects what he pays for’ the brothers began to charge seven francs for the guide and included, for the first time, a list of hotels and restaurants in Paris. At the same time the brothers enlisted a group of mystery diners to visit the restaurants anonymously to review them. By 1936 the guide was publishing the star system we know today: one star for a very good restaurant in its category, two stars is ‘excellent cooking, worth a detour’ and three is ‘exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey’.

The guide now boasts its presence in over thirty territories across three continents, listing over 30,000 establishments. Amongst dining circles its reputation is incomparable and within the industry its influence is more tangible than ever. Nothing comes with higher merit than to eat or to work in a Michelin-starred restaurant and it is the pinnacle of any chef’s career to win a Michelin star.

We talked at length about my philosophy in the kitchen, the role of Michelin and the restaurants of today. I was told that inspectors only reveal themselves on occasions when they have had a meal of significant quality, and that this had been one. I was told that if we continued to cook this way we could be seeing the restaurant in the Michelin Guide soon.

Through all of this I felt like I was part of a play, faced with an inspector that could just as easily been from Scotland Yard a century ago as the world’s foremost secret dining club. As Mr G**** left I half expected to see a dense shroud of fog rise up in which he disappeared without trace.

Five years on and we have never obtained that Michelin star. Of course, we would be very proud if we did but at the same time it is not our main priority. Sam (our head chef) and I often talk about it as a way of measuring the quality of our output – holding up a subjective barometer can be one way of critiquing our work. But we enjoy the way we cook. It is highly creative and influenced by a set of core values unique to us. It is reactionary to many elements, natural and otherwise, that exist outside of our world and often a dish may only stay on for a day at the behest of scarce produce or evolving ideas.

Last year, however, we were included in a group of restaurants who were the first to be awarded a ‘Green’ Michelin star. The Green star is a new accolade created to recognise the efforts of restaurants adopting sustainable practices; those that hold themselves accountable for both their ethical and environmental standards.

The team and I were over the moon and incredibly proud. This was an award that we felt both deserved of and that recognised what was important to us. But I was a little sceptical about the integrity of a medal celebrating sustainability handed out by a company that last year sold £17 billion worth of tyres. I also wasn’t sure who was vetting this award. What kind of training they had been given and just how much they could ascertain of a restaurant’s sustainable practices when reviewing under cover? Surely, in order to review these factors, there had to be a certain amount of exploration back of house and questioning of the staff?

On the other hand, the creation of the Green star is an incredible gesture from a company with such influence and pulling power in the field. If we are going to act more responsibly as an industry, the chance to win an accolade from Michelin for doing it means a lot more enthusiasm for change.

Everybody wants to be good at what they do and everyone wants to be recognised for their efforts. It is good to push yourself and strive to be the best you can be. Sometimes, however, the attainment of these prizes can surpass the more implicit motives for hard work, and we can quickly find our senses exploited by our perception of ‘success’. We are all familiar with the athlete that tests positive for performance enhancing drugs, the cutthroat politics of the Oscars. There are even reports of murder at Crufts.

When it comes to joining the pedigree of top restaurants via Michelin, chefs are no exception in compromising their judgement. Stories of brutal work conditions in top restaurants are as old as the coveted star and continue to surface to this day. The cliched narrative of a chef burning out and a team dragged through long hours under unnecessary pressures are a harsh reality. Of course, not everyone chasing stars is guilty of this; equally, there are many kitchens up and down the country guilty of creating horrendous work environments that are far from Michelin’s radar. It also has to be understood that no single organisation or person can be held culpable for an industry-wide problem. But in the pursuit of excellence humans can quickly forget themselves, get caught up in the chase and compromise their ethics or morals for accolades and medals.

Michelin cannot be held responsible for this. But as Disney recognised its part in the development of children and started to write characters that build positive messages of equality, should Michelin step forward to lend a hand in moulding the kitchens of the future?

A Green star is a great step in the right direction but the underlying message in the separation of these two accolades is that you can aim for greatness without consideration for equality or sustainability. If the Green star was a prerequisite to gaining an actual star, this could do much to influence the industry. Another way to insight positive change would be to add certain technical criteria to the requirements for a Michelin star, such as no chef working more than sixty hours in a week.

Perhaps it is the responsibility of organisations like Michelin to dissuade us from the human instinct to work ourselves – and others – to the bone. To help sculpt a new idea of what it means to be successful. To reward excellence by dissuading against hardship.

It is much easier to achieve excellence when certain factors can be overlooked, and in restaurant kitchens it is easy to overlook the wellbeing of a team of people. Many industries are guilty of exploiting the health of workers under the guise of achieving greatness. But to achieve excellence whilst maintaining a beneficial work environment for all is a true test of skill. If those with a stake in our industry took a strong and resolute stance, perhaps at the expense of popularity, resources and ‘tradition’, this could go some way to cut a new path and inspire others to follow suit. Next time an inspector calls, I hope their visit counts both the exceptional flavours on the plate and the level of self-worth amongst the team towards an accolade of the highest rank.